So, on 27 July, I met up with Neil Morton, who had generously volunteered to accompany me up the Thames. We dropped the van at the finish point, then drove to Lechlade, pumped up the kayak, gathered our belongings, slathered me with suncream and then down the muddy bank I slithered into the brown-green waters of the Thames. We slid the kayak in, Neil climbed aboard, and off we went. Stroke, stroke, stroke. What could possibly go wrong?
Well...poor Neil quickly learned the hard way that his kayak had a puncture, and after only a few minutes of paddling, the kayaking was sagging unnervingly, looking dangerously like it was about to fold in two around Neil before sinking unceremoniously to the muddy bottom. He paddled quickly to the bank and scrabbled ashore, dragging the now floppy kayak behind him. Further explorations revealed a puncture too serious to deal with there and then, so a quick Plan B was concocted - Neil would stash the kayak at a nearby campsite, then he would spot for me from the tow-path, carrying the feeds and kit in the rucksack-style bag that the kayak is stored in. It is important to note that this bag is in no way designed for 10 mile walks laden down with bottles of carb drink, and for even contemplating this, Neil deserves a medal. He dragged the deflated kayak across a cow field to the campsite, and then heaved the bag onto his back; I slithered back down the bank, and off we went again.
For me (but probably less so for Neil), this was a lovely swim. I've not done much river swimming, and the linearity of it gives the swim a 'journeying' feel. I love the idea that you could just keep swimming to London and then pop out into the sea. The river is teeming with bird and plantlife, and winds lazily through the fields and trees. Some parts of it have been more actively 'civilised' for human use and are edged with boat moorings or manicured pub gardens whose occupants would put down their drinks and point in surprise as I swam past. There are also a number of weirs and locks, which I would walk through in my costume, hat, goggles and lime green crocs to the considerable bewilderment of other lock-users before plopping back into the water downstream of the lock gates. There were some gloriously comic moments too: an encounter with a very angry swan that objected to us stopping at the bank for a feed and which Neil tried to distract with thrown jelly babies (note for the future: this doesn't work and only angers the swan further); the fisherman, annoyed that I had disturbed his fishing, who catapulted maggots at me as I swam past; and poor Neil, who sat on a nest of ants whilst trying to pass me a feed. (Neil, as you can tell, suffered greatly during this particular swim and will no doubt think twice in the future before ever starting a conversation with "I've got an idea for a swim...").
I finished the swim in 5 hours (about 17km according to my Hydrotracker, so I definitely benefitted from the slight flow of the river in my favour), just before the rain started to come down in sheets - so at least the long-suffering Neil was spared that additional indignity. Peter met us at the finish point, and we got changed and then drove to Lechlade to recover the kayak which, in a final insult to Neil, had to be folded up, still smeared with cow dung from being dragged across the field, into the back of his car. I'm really not sure that the pizza dinner that we had afterwards was anything like compensation enough for his labours, but I had a wonderful river swim that was both excellent training and a welcome reminder of the pleasures of swimming. For this, and everything else that day, I am enormously grateful to Neil.
But then the revenge...not from Neil, but from the river. I've never been made ill by the water I've swum in, and I was happily left unscathed by the sewerage-polluted waters around Manhattan in June which made so many of my fellow swimmers ill. But within 24 hours, my body was doing everything in its power to rid itself of whatever unwelcome bacteria was in there and I was not happy. It finally abated two days later, but was certainly enough to make me think twice before swimming in the Thames again...although I know that many people do without ill effect. Just bad luck, perhaps.
But in spite of the unfortunate conclusion, the swim itself was a wonderful, exciting, confidence-boosting day. Many thanks to Neil for the many labours and indignities that he was subjected to - I definitely owe you. And for me, it was then onwards, stomach still churning angrily, to the Lake District....